Stewardship = Presence… so I claimed four years ago in an article for the Ecological Landscape Alliance. With the passing of another 49 moons, with landscapes under ever more climate stress, and with continuing upward trends in pesticide usage, I wish to revisit that simple notion of Stewardship. I work in the world of invasive species, terrestrial plants more specifically, but everywhere I go, both in-country and abroad, I have asked others to clarify their understanding of land stewardship. While plenty of folks have touched on the idea of resource management, caretaking, and connection to nature, I was most deeply struck by two responses: “relationships” and “continuity.” Brilliant.
You may wonder why you’re finding an article on Stewardship in The Natural Farmer. Fair enough, but ask yourself a second question. Wouldn’t it be something if the spirit and principles of organic farming were applied to land management in general? To landscapes and resources everywhere? There are good teachings in the organic movement, as in the world of permaculture, but I submit that the spirit of good stewardship is important not just for our farms and pastures, but also for our woodlands, rivers, schools, our business organizations, and even our lovely backyards. Stewardship IS about relationships: to nature, to self, and to one another in diverse communities. Stewardship is also continuity, positive actions carrying through time and across generations.
I believe farmers and growers grasp these ideas; moreover, they appreciate the dynamic nature of their trade. Anyone who works the land and builds soil knows that the agricultural landscape is a nuanced place, always in a transition of some kind. Should you happen to be absent during these endless cycles of transition, you’ll be sure to miss something. Something vital, a signal that perhaps could have served you well. Remember: if a tree falls in the forest, and there is no one to hear, does it make a sound? I would push the question a little further. If that tree falls in the forest, but no one is listening… what then? Does the sound or anything else that might happen even matter? Presence: it’s all about being there with the senses in full-open position.
A long-term approach to landscape transition forces us to hone our craft, pick up cues and recognize forces at play. We learn that different times of day offer different perspectives; we see by evening light all the patterns and signs we missed in the morning. We learn that wild parsnip may grow seven feet tall, but under stress it comes down to hide just below the goldenrod. Clever indeed; parsnip can also flower at only three inches tall, right into October. No mystery any longer in understanding why mowing regimes simply never keep up. The lessons we learn in our own spaces translate well up and down the road; in engaging our neighbors we compare notes and concerns and perhaps pool resources.
Personally, my choice to be present with people or things or places is an indicator of respect, care, and connection. Professionally, and particularly in regard to vegetation management, my presence represents commitment and a determination to be there when things happen and to be proactive before even more things happen. Most calls I receive involve situations that are way out of hand. In the world of fruit tree pruning, it can be impressive to stand among trees that have not been managed since forever. Wow, but with invasive vines or the family of “danger plants,” years of inattention can be a disaster.
Presence allows landowners to avoid crisis, to see situations early, and to act appropriately. Actions can be clearly focused and incremental, rather than cases of periodic and overwhelming crisis management. The financial angle is also simple: minor annual commitment equates to avoidance of massive outlays every five or ten years. View it as an annual health check-up, although land should be visited much more frequently.
I try to monitor my project sites at least twice a year; this is how I uncovered the magic formula for shrub control. I found that shrub species cannot handle three stress events over two growing seasons. What does that mean? If I absolutely deny photosynthesis by girdling or stump-cutting an autumn olive tree, it will draw from its root reserves and re-sprout. But if I come back and strip that re-growth, it will have to return to the storage vault once more. A second visit to strip sprouts will likely be the end of that individual. Three stress events that allow insufficient time for recovery; this kills off most of the target shrubs while also breaking seed production. I go into the third growing season having few survivors to track down and two years with no seed rain saturating the soil. If I have begun addressing the immature shrubs while fostering recovery of the natives on hand, I am well on the way to successful site transition.
We desperately need more presence on the land as we find ourselves ever more disconnected from the natural world; climate change has only accelerated fear factors and added to the urgency of that need. Yet in the realm of vegetation management, we continue at all levels to defy nature’s steady push for balance and resilience. We curiously fail to approach the challenge of high-impact invasive species with a cooperative unity, turning to aggressive chemicals as a matter of routine. Such is our mindset in 2020; I prove the point with an informal survey from the 2019 national invasive species conference.
Prior to my presentation I asked the audience whether any among them were from the world of recreation. Then whether any represented the tribal nations, whether anyone made a living from agriculture, and whether any were attending on their own dime. Never did more than two hands go up among an audience of perhaps eighty people. It is a true failing that so few interests were represented at a national meeting; we clearly have work to do. Beekeepers, golf course managers, mountain bikers, beer makers… where were all those who benefit daily from functional landscapes and clean water? Managing landscapes for healthy ecosystem function is similar to the world of safety; it requires all of us to participate with commitment and awareness. Constantly, all the time. Showing up once a year simply doesn’t get it done; all of us need to show up and create real synergy. Government’s role would be to remove the financial obstacles preventing us all from working together.
A second example highlights our twisting or even full abandonment of the now hollow notion of Integrated Pest Management. In October of 2018, Cornell University researchers published an article detailing alternatives to glyphosate for weed control. The article gave short shrift to the techniques of flaming, mentioned only two hand tools, the shovel and the weed wrench, and made no mention whatsoever of solarizing or grazing. This article appears online with the university’s seal of approval; it clearly comes with cred. Yet, incredibly, there is no mention of the potato fork, the #1 tool many of us use to gently ease taproot species from the soil. I love the potato fork; I have one for each hand and refer to them by name. With practice one can remove many wild chervil plants while barely disturbing the soil structure. I here submit that no one should write articles on invasive species management if they have never met a potato fork. Nor, even more disturbingly, should they then pretend to possess enough methodology background to lay out a cost comparison. Where’s the data on that? How do you value the full suite of outcomes fostered via the long-term stewardship approach versus the singular focus of short-timeline chemical management? Forget apples to oranges, this is apples to planets. Yet this is what the public sees, this is what we spoon-feed landowners through the extension service and state agencies. Glyphosate is the tool you need folks, cheapest and most effective; that is the message, completely endorsed by our university system.
It gets worse, actually. I have had educators from another university inform me that my project sites are too successful. The work is so thorough (on a half-dozen target species) that there’s not enough to show people from a demonstration standpoint. Odd, considering that I benchmark my sites with before and after photos. In fact, here’s a good ‘before’ photo of mature buckthorn and honeysuckle in a fairly stable woodland.
These young people are the future landowners, community members, environmental leaders, and scientists that we need. In our present mindset of crisis management with chemical methods, we are not growing resource stewards; in fact the dis-connect from nature grows wider every year. How do we reconnect people to cherished landscapes? How do we nourish the soul and even perhaps rehabilitate those who’ve lost their way? Time on the land would grow new stewards, with the generations sharing knowledge and diverse faces offering fresh perspectives. Why are resource stewards critical? Because there is no such thing as a landscape or project site completely insulated from “the outside world.” We need people tuned in to the nuances of the natural landscape, people who know the disruptive exotic species to watch for. Chemical approaches do not build that pool of future resource stewards; project “deliverables” include only immediate results, the percentage of mature plant kills. Do the agencies realize that all their grant-funded eradication work is doing absolutely nothing about the seeds in the soil? Everything will return in a few years if the land managers themselves do not return.
How can it be that we place such little emphasis on empowering our rising generations and our struggling communities? Why do we TALK about Integrated Pest Management, but choose to fund only chemical approaches? I have seen this, just last year with a fair amount of coin involved. $50,000 was available to execute a chemical treatment program, but alternative approaches were ineligible for funding. No goat grazing, no training of locals and neighbors, no long-term manual control drawing from the local labor force. There was no willingness on the part of the managerial non-profit to pay volunteers or professionals outside the realm of the herbicide practitioners. Completely disingenuous in my mind… a lost opportunity and a waste of good money. Even with only a few neighbors actively participating, a people-power approach with non-chemical methods would have cost far less than fifty grand. And the takeaway (deliverables) would have included a group of people trained to work safely and capable of preventing the next crisis. Sad to see that antiquated mindset holding people back; time for some evolution.
The above story is no isolated incident from 2019. I encounter similar scenarios routinely, big money steered toward the herbicide approach. Little has seemingly changed since my first invasive species conference in 2005. Even back then I noticed attendees obtaining pesticide certification credits for their conference participation. No other credits were offered, however. The herbicide professionals were organized and licensed, which is a good thing, but no other management approaches held such acceptance and high standing. Throughout the day I heard how difficult exotic species can be with devastating economic and ecological impacts. Keywords like Early Detection and Adaptive Management abounded, but there was no mention of Presence, no acknowledgement of stewardship continuity and community relationships leading the way in landscape rehabilitation. All energies seemed to focus on winning the battles with singular high-impact species, the War on Weeds mentality, rather than rebuilding soils and reflecting on our management shortfalls. I recall no exploration of economic positives associated with non-native species (with the exception of garlic mustard pesto, apparently a favorite dish of land managers). I enjoy the pesto as well, and plan to roll out Japanese knotweed crisp later this summer!
So here I wish to thank you all, you reading this fine publication right now. Thank you as I enter my tenth growing season as founder / owner of Got Weeds? You provided me early on with both the challenge and the opportunity. In the company of farmers and growers is where I first heard that the farmer’s footsteps are the best fertilizer. Not long after, I decided those same footsteps might also serve as the best herbicide. At a Soils gathering I heard John Kempf firmly (but kindly) remind an audience member that one is not truly on the land if one never gets off the tractor. Thus we come to understand Presence.
I have thanked you, and now I call upon you. To act and to instruct and to share your appreciation of Presence. You know the value of brush piles and the power of forward-thinking. You understand the dynamic nature of landscapes and the plant populations they support. But Presence is a word as alien to agencies and academia as the undesired species themselves. There is simply too much land and too many exotic species for us to be present everywhere all at once, no?. False, absolutely wrong. The issue is that we scatter our efforts and seek to impose our human calendar on that of the plant world. They go dormant in the fall, and we shut down as well. Farmers and growers know better, that autumn is the time to set the stage for next spring’s growth. Feed the soil and stress the invasives right until the ground freezes. Find that focus, hone that edge.
Readers of The Natural Farmer also appreciate nutritious food and all the work behind fine culinary creations. You will appreciate my point when I urge a halt to the relentless harvesting of ostrich ferns for the hipster dish known as fiddleheads. We lament the loss of our riverbanks to Japanese knotweed monocultures even as we hammer their chief competitor year after year. Were we even slightly more informed, we would know that small, tender knotweed shoots can also be sauteed and served up with garlic butter. Imagine the ecological impact over just a single year if we suddenly shifted to a diet of knotweed shoots instead of fiddleheads. But wait, will anyone be interested in fresh greens coming from land with a chemical legacy? Or knotweed crisp or garlic mustard pesto recently slathered with pesticide sauce? Hmmmm.
I shall return to the issue of toxins and cumulative effects and climate impacts. For the moment, let me offer some details on managing invasive or “undesirable” plant species. Most invasive species are good colonizers, even the natives like poison ivy, so they are well suited to poor soils and disturbance. They are often beneficial in some way, taprooting to bring nutrients up from the depths or covering bare ground quickly to suppress erosion. That said, there are occasions where we wish to prevent an incursion of exotic species, perhaps in the name of public safety as with wild parsnip. My message of Presence simply recognizes the value of early detection and an informed read of the landscape. To successfully transition the space, we need to cooperate across boundaries and work strategically, choosing our locations and timing our actions. What is the vision, what are the plants on hand, and what will the landscape allow?
1. First, some species truly are tenacious, and the value of prevention in that realm is immeasurable. While single plants can be successfully removed, issues begin once they have gained a foothold and begun dropping seed or growing the underground network. Do not allow such plants to establish at all; this includes goutweed, comfrey, Japanese knotweed, bedstraw, bindweed and wild chervil. Goutweed happily hitches a ride in the soil of potted plants, so biosecurity is an important prevention keyword. And this is not about whether the plants have economic value; yes comfrey and plantain and knotweed and burdock have serious beneficial uses, but it is completely irresponsible to introduce those species into new spaces. So I submit. We can argue about it, but planting hardy kiwi vines down the road from a centuries-old apple orchard is not particularly neighborly, and yes, I’m aware that the apple varieties are likely non-native imports as well.
2. Success is all about transitioning landscapes. We accomplish little by eradicating a target species while allowing four others to take advantage. People ask: “Mike, have you ever successfully eradicated Japanese knotweed?” I reply that I have created enduring forest plots where Japanese knotweed once dominated. There are now fifteen foot tall trees of several species where once only knotweed stood. This would not have happened without intervention, and those trees will now last what, 200 to 300 years? Even if the knotweed does return, the landscape has shifted. Conditions are not quite so favorable, although one single weather event could certainly alter things. For the record, through Year Nine on my oldest knotweed site, I found a total of 35 tiny knotweed stems, all of which were extracted before reaching one foot in height. Most were around three inches; I have to keep track of their locations with flagging. More brief site visits in Year Ten will prevent any recovery.
3. It is much easier / simpler to manage hotspots than endless infestations. Learn what a Weed Drying Station is and build one of your own. Total cost: zero dollars, one half teaspoon of sweat. While you’re at it, designate a few places for brush piles to decompose. This is your future soil… within a few years you’ll have beautiful material to fill divots and woodchuck holes. You truly don’t need to torch that vegetation and watch the pile become yet more CO2 in the atmosphere. Vegetation is a resource…. know that above all else. Brush piles also support ground-nesting birds, so build your credibility as a conservationist. The photo illustrates how I protect an open space sloping into a fairly pristine wetland.
The stumps are common buckthorn encroaching outward from the woodline. The flagged apple tree, the cedar, the sumac stands, and sporadic grey dogwood are allowed to thrive in the name of species and habitat diversity. No need for toxins and no need to burn off the brush. Even if there are viable seeds in the piles, I can smother or pull those easily later.
4. Know the land and what happens upon it. Then be sure you know where the sun is. Know the flow of water as well and where the prevailing winds originate, but sunlight is the driver of plant life. And something quite crucial happens around the 4th of July for many invasive shrub species. Your local calendar is the one to follow, but in Vermont early July is when fruits begin to harden off their seeds. Until then, any heavy stress event on an invasive shrub pretty much breaks seed production for that growing season. This is why I target the larger, fruiting shrubs earlier in the year. I still pull, cut, flame and girdle all the way into December, and while that work is important over the long term, it does not break the seed cycle. With a four to five year seed life, many shrub species can rebound from an initial, aggressive control effort. I contend that Year Three is often the most difficult year for transitioning sites. Mature shrubs may still be hanging on, new plants are bursting from the soil seed bank, and the installed or favored native species are not yet competitive. Few things are more rewarding than reaching Year Four and seeing the shift gain traction. The beech, dogwood, maples and white pine are accelerating, while the stressed buckthorn and burning bush are fading under the constant pressure.
5. Just this month I discussed with clients how they might execute a harvest or thinning of their woodlands. Imagine an expanse of relatively healthy forest with a weak but opportunistic presence of invasive species lurking within and nearby. Perhaps it’s barberry and bittersweet along property lines or patches of honeysuckle and garlic mustard at trailheads. Yes, absolutely get in ahead of the heavy equipment and begin suppressing exotic species. But equally important is figuring out where and how to begin. I ask: if the sun is toward the south, would we not want to keep some kind of barrier in place as we open up the landscape? Even if the barrier is a wall of buckthorn trees, would that not have some limiting effect? Can we use the invasive species on the southern boundary, even just temporarily, to prevent sunlight from reaching their own offspring? Ironic, no, but is that not wiser than starting to clear on the south side? If possible, if conditions allow, this is the kind of creative strategizing I encourage.
Let us move now to the subject of chemical treatment programs and herbicide usage. My goal from the beginning has been to reduce our overall pesticide usage. I maintain we could have achieved reductions over the past twenty years had we simply chosen to use our brains and problem-solving abilities. Sadly, little has changed in that realm since Got Weeds? has been in operation; I still see county foresters promoting chemical methods as the go-to option and consumers thoughtlessly self-interpreting the meaning of “in or near water.”
I see no attention whatsoever to cumulative effects, no understanding that our lands already carry a toxic legacy even while enduring more frequent and severe disturbance events (hurricanes, floods, etc.). I see farms and communities struggle with invasive species; they did not directly cause the problem but are left with poor quality hay and public safety hazards. There is no funding to help people learn about real-world biosecurity and equipment cleanliness. What’s the fix?
Well, one idea might be to stop furthering the harm with yet more toxin. Allow the soil to heal, train people to listen to their landscapes and discover something about themselves as well. Chemical approaches have always been short-term in nature, failing to address the seed bank on site and simply not welcoming participation by community members. I realize that scouting organizations conducted outings with backpack sprayers in the past and cities even organized Spontaneous Weed Action Teams (SWAT), but the safety issues can no longer be so easily brushed aside. Manual and mechanical treatment methods offer the best opportunities to train field stewards of the future. We need those eyes and feet on the land.
Look to Pomfret, Vermont. Some twenty landowners support the goal of preventing wild parsnip from taking hold in their neighborhood. The result is a landscape free of wild parsnip infestations, even as adjacent lands are completely overrun: collective stewardship. The roadsides are not “clean,” but the annual colonizers are intercepted annually with vigilance and potato forks over several square miles.
My final arguments against herbicide usage center on the CO2 impact and the idea of supporting businesses in line with consumer values. To passionately support organic farming and buy local is no longer sufficient; we as communities need to press our utilities and our non-profits and state agencies to STOP with the mindless application of toxins year after year. We can take what we’ve learned on the farm and grow a larger positive, a broader benefit for human health and watersheds everywhere. The power of the consumer is simple, and we should ask: “Would we rather support a local small business with five employees, or instead send our money to some multinational corporation manufacturing toxins in a faraway city?” The utilities should pay landowners to graze animals under powerlines, and states could pay people NOT to burn brush piles. Wouldn’t that be an ecosystem service, the act of NOT burning future soil? We talk of payment for ecosystem services…. Pay up, I say.
Regarding the carbon footprint, I see four CO2 impacts directly associated with pesticide usage, but this always seems to escape conversations on sustainability and climate change. Institutions of higher learning make abstract claims to lead the world in sustainability and green operations. Do they account for their annual use of pesticides on managed lands or for insect control? Pesticides require energy to produce, more energy to transport, yet more energy to apply them on site, and then in the end they break down into compounds such as formaldehyde and CO2. A fourfold CO2 impact, according to my math. And what about the utilities; is their vegetation management program included or held up for CO2 scrutiny? We should all be asking this question. I found nothing in the 2020 Vermont legislature’s Global Warming Solutions Act (H. 688) to address pesticide usage. Nothing… it’s almost as if pesticides get a free pass. Why is that?
So if you truly wish to keep your meadow free of invasive species, try this: return the herbicides for a refund and think about how you might build protective belts around the space. A meadow with bedstraw and bindweed is already suffering, but it can get worse if wild chervil and burdock and others decide to join in. This protective belt approach broadly applies to any economically valued space: hayfields, recreation areas, an orchard. Rather than hiring someone to walk transects back and forth all day, get real about biosecurity at the entrance gates and take steps to clean any equipment that comes and goes. Then, study the perimeter. If you were to allow “the Big Leafies” to establish on the perimeter, then commit to a mowing / scything / grazing regime in a strip along that edge, you would have two belts for control. First is the dense vegetation under which nothing can get started (perhaps encourage pokeweed, elderberries, and bee balm). Second is the tightly mowed grass strip serving as a no-grow zone. Any weeds desiring that central protected space must first penetrate the outer belt with their seed heads and then propel seeds across the mowed strip. Not impossible, but any of us could walk that groomed path and pick out undesirables in the protected interior. Potato fork in one hand, beverage in the other. I promise this is not hard and chopped hay along the edges doesn’t really dry well anyway, so productivity loss is micro. The most important consideration is to keep the mower blowing from the “clean” space into the “contaminated” outer space. And what about round bales, those big 800 pound marshmallows dotting the hayfields? Why not park them as a protective belt around the hayfield’s most exposed edge? Nothing grows through round bales, so they could double as elements of the biosecurity plan.
At the bottom of this page is a hayfield protected from the upslope roadway by a wall of burdock and a tightly mowed perimeter strip.
The photo illustrates the protective belts model. The hayfield has value, but the introduction of wild parsnip and wild chervil seed along the roadway is a constant. No worries, allow the burdock to form a wall and maintain the mowing strip. Burdock is not the ideal, not even native and those seed pods are annoying, but anything is better than dangerous parsnip. Morning walkabouts are good exercise and allow the owner to easily proof the field edges. Monitoring made easier. She should probably change direction with her mower though. Mow clean sides first?
Earlier I mentioned the potato fork and its most-favored status among all the tools I carry. Allow me to explain. The best thing about Presence is enjoying the place as if I’m not even there, just feeling it carry on as it otherwise would. I don’t want the tree to have second thoughts about falling just on account of my presence. So I move quietly, thoughtfully, and when people hire me to transition their landscape vegetation, it is much the same. Come in, acquaint, connect, safe the site, perform the task, set the stage for follow-up, and step away. Make it seem as though I was never even there. Solarizing can look a little aggressive with the sheets of plastic, and brush-hogging is equally jarring sometimes. But the potato fork is the ultimate tool for herbaceous weeds. A little pry on two or three sides of the target plant, then a steady lift. Gentle upward pressure with gloved hand on the stem…. steady… keep going… and there you go. Out it slides. Lightly shake off soil, inspect the root for break-offs, then onto the drying station. Tamp down the cracks in the soil and clean tools before leaving.
I can pull thousands of weeds a day, and other than a certain color or texture now missing from the landscape fabric, it’s almost as if I had not even been there. Just how I like to leave it. The only legacy is cooperative relationships and enduring continuity. That’s how this weed guy manages to be everywhere, all at once and at just the right moment.
Oh look, is that a new moon?
Michael Bald founded his company, Got Weeds?, in early 2011 to offer non-chemical weed management options to landowners in central Vermont and New Hampshire. His focus is on long-term site stewardship, soil health, and native plant diversity; Mike seeks to integrate the worlds of invasive species, youth education, organic farming, and sustainable operations. With a BS in Biology from the University of Notre Dame, four years of service in the Army Corps of Engineers, and nine years working for the US Forest Service in Vermont, Mike appreciates the importance of healthy habitats, site specificity and ecosystem resilience. Got Weeds? has offered manual and mechanical weed control alternatives for ten growing seasons; Mike’s specialty areas include solarizing, management of “the danger plants,” and training workshops for groups and landowners.